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A Thousand Miles to Graceland
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Grace Johnson can’t escape the feeling that her life is on autopilot—until her husband announces he’s done with their marriage. Grace has a choice: wallow in humiliation . . . or reluctantly grant her outlandish mother’s seventieth birthday wish with a road trip Graceland. Buckle up, Elvis. We’re on our way.
Now the two are hightailing it from El Paso to Memphis, leaving a trail of sequins, false eyelashes, and difficult memories in their wake. Between spontaneous roadside stops to psychics, wig mishaps, and familiar passive-aggressive zingers, Grace is starting to better understand her Elvis-obsessed mama and their own fragile connection. She may even have another shot at love. Apparently the King really does work in mysterious ways. But after all these years, will it ever be possible for Grace and her mom to heal the hurts of the past?
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How do you get your eyeliner to stay on like that?" Jane Choi, our summer accounting intern from Syracuse, peeked through the door that I thought I had closed all the way. She waved her hand over her eyelids. "Mine always looks like shit." She whispered "shit" as if I were her mother, which did exactly what I'm pretty sure she intended: it made me feel like it. "That part, you know, in here. How do you…" She gestured to the inner corner of her eye.
"Epicanthic fold." I cut her off, then went back to typing. Jane was notorious for asking questions about what conditioner I used or where I got that sweater, all of which would devolve rather quickly into some sort of gossipy conversation about so-and-so doing you-know-what. My new tack was looking busy.
"Oh my god, it has, like, an official name? You do know everything, Grace!" She gave me a shrug and a wide smile before scurrying off to her cubicle.
I examined my client's quarterly calculations on my laptop screen, surrounded by framed degrees and a photo of me with Mama from my high school graduation more than two decades ago, which made me feel oddly self-conscious. It was the only picture I had of Mama and me where she looked semi-normal; none of the cheap wigs or bejeweled bell bottoms and platforms that made every other photo look like I was taking a picture with a Vegas showgirl. I had begged her to dress like all the other moms, so she went with "Priscilla Presley in mourning," which involved black from head to toe. I didn't care if she had to pretend she was at a funeral instead of my graduation; it was the most subtle outfit I had ever seen her in. Between our rigid poses and the wall-to-wall Elvis collectibles behind us, we looked like a page out of Awkward Family Photos. She knew exactly when she got each and every one of the ceramic figurines, which she organized chronologically by Elvis's career. And anytime anyone made the mistake of asking about one of them, she'd tell its entire backstory: where she was, who sold it to her, and how much she paid.
It had been so long since I'd done more than glance at the photo that I'd forgotten our faces, me grinning as if someone had put a gun to my head and told me to smile. And her face, like someone about to say goodbye to her best friend.
* * *
The end of September at an accounting firm is like April all over again, except with an extra sense of urgency because there's no extending extensions. Most of the employees at Whit, Warner, and Hodges, PC, lined up out the doors at the end of April, not to return until fall. They'd leave their offices with tax forms still piled high on desks or covering the floors, as if the firm were under attack and everyone had made an exit through their escape pods, except me and a few other idiots who fed their avoidance of the outside world by working all summer long under the guise of "getting ahead."
I chose accounting because it was at the top of the list of college majors, alphabetically speaking, and I felt terribly embarrassed when Mama would brag about how her daughter was going to be a CPA, knowing full well that I just picked it because it was the first thing I saw. Anything to get me out of my house.
At first, all the numbers made me think I should have gone down the list a little bit farther, to anthropology or archaeology, just something where math problems weren't the center of my universe. But I grew to love the predictability, and by my junior year, I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
Mama described accounting like it was some exotic job that no one had ever heard of: "And she takes these forms, you see, and does all these calculations, and TADA!" She'd sing "TADA" like she was on stage doing a musical number at the annual Fort Bliss Talent Show.
"Mama, it's really not that exciting," I'd interrupt. She'd smile and wave me off, rolling her eyes about me to whoever stuck around long enough to endure her performance.
The secret I never told anyone was that you didn't need to be a star mathematician to do accounting. It's rigidity and solitude that you need to find satisfying.
But even the mundane had become mundane. Or at least now, I was just noticing it more. I was starting to get the Sunday scaries—this feeling of doom that the weekend was ending and I'd have to return to the office—every single weeknight, right before bed, like clockwork, which was doing wonders for my sleep. I could usually rally myself with the incentive of a Starbucks latte on my way to work, and on extra difficult days, on the way home too.
But my downward spiral of boredom required more than just a fancy coffee. Instead of seeing numbers, I found myself calculating the sums of my clients' exciting lives—airfare, hotels, "office furniture"—which was code for "I just bought a killer porch couch to go on my new beach house deck"—whereas pressing send on emails had become the sum of mine. The contrast between their lives and my own was stark, and I found myself spending more time trying to figure out where I had gone wrong, which is a recipe for depression, especially with a job like mine.
My phone buzzed. "See you at therapy later!!!—Jeff" He always signed off his texts like I wouldn't know who was three-exclamation-points excited about marriage counseling.
Even though I'd been seeing my own therapist for years, the whole couples therapy thing was completely new to me, and not my idea whatsoever. But the distance between us had become so vast, even for Jeff and his cockeyed optimism, so he suggested we see someone, and I obliged, even though I had a sinking feeling deep down that there was no fixing something that had always been a little broken.
The first time I met Jeff, he was working at the Chili's near my office. My friend and I just wanted a cheap, unpretentious night of drinking after a late night of tax season cramming, free from pathetic pickup lines delivered by greasy, suited men with their top buttons undone and loosened ties around their necks. We kept getting drinks we didn't remember ordering delivered to our table, which our server finally told us were compliments of the manager. She pointed to a cute guy probably in his late twenties, hovering by the hostess stand, with super slicked-back dark hair and a slightly overgrown five o'clock shadow. He was wearing crisply ironed khakis and a polo shirt that was a bit too small for his dad bod, with chest hair peeking up above the buttons, which didn't look purposeful, though I remember thinking that if his chest was so hairy, what might the rest of him look like? But his extremely toothy grin distracted me, as did the huge ice cream sundae he walked over to us and placed in front of me.
"Thanks, but…I'm allergic to dairy," I told him, grinning sheepishly. His face sank.
"I am so sorry for your loss," he replied, as if he were walking through a receiving line at a funeral, which made me giggle. He hurried off into the kitchen and brought me every other dessert item on the menu that didn't have dairy, then stopped back at our table just enough to seem friendly and not weird, asking what I did for a living and why the hell I was drinking gin and tonics at a Chili's, in between greeting and seating customers with gestures far too grand for a college campus chain restaurant. He acted like the manager at a Michelin-starred establishment, and he made everyone who came in feel like they were eating at one too, which I found to be quite charming.
So when he asked for my number, I decided why the hell not. That's also what I decided when he asked me out.
On our first date, he took me to this little hole-in-the-wall Italian place in the middle of a strip mall, which had me a little concerned for my poor, already sensitive bowels. He assured me that they had the best pasta in Boston, and he wasn't lying. The entire staff greeted him, and then me, with hugs and double-cheek kisses, followed by a tsunami of the most amazing food and then sorbet, which he asked them to bring in just for me. I felt special in a way I hadn't experienced, which I suppose wasn't too hard considering every date with my last boyfriend conveniently ended up at a bar with a group of his friends, all gathered watching whatever sports game was on the big screen above us.
But he sealed the deal when we got back to his car and found a hefty dent in the fender, to which he just said, "Damn Boston drivers!" and shrugged his shoulders. No yelling. Not even gritted-teeth grumbling, which made me feel relaxed and comfortable. What he lacked in soap opera star good looks and a svelte physique, he made up for with his thoughtfulness and even temper, which felt lovely and stable at first.
But as time went on, the thoughtfulness became obligatory, like it was his job, and his constantly cheerful mood made me think I was doing something wrong by having feelings. I'd bring up a tough part of my day, like the terrible meal at a super important new business luncheon I had personally planned, and he'd give me some sort of "could be worse" scenario. Let's just say, nothing can compete with "the starving children," which he actually said to me, like he was my mama trying to get me to eat one of her terrible concoctions she called "dinner." All I wanted to do was bitch about the undercooked chicken and wiry long hair in my boss's salad for a couple of minutes and not get the sunny side of the street shoved down my throat.
For the last few years, we'd felt more like roommates than lovers, or even really friends, two ships passing during the after-work hours, him to the gym, and me to the bedroom, where I'd binge-watch several seasons of some television show in rapid succession, popping out to grab food and feed the cat. Any effort for a date night had to come from me, after I made one complaint about his choice of activity (axe throwing, really?), so we usually ended up having dinner and drinks, that was until he started amping up his workout regimen and weighing all of his food. Then we'd just sit on the couch, watching some obscure indie movie or foreign film that the millennial servers he worked with at the restaurant had recommended, his hand rubbing my leg in a robotic motion as if it were programmed to do so. We slept in the same queen-size bed, but it felt like we were miles apart, the late-night brushing of our arms or legs no longer the start of romance, but rather a reminder that one of us had encroached on the other's space.
I started texting him back but then decided on the most unenthusiastic reply—a thumbs-up on his message—then turned my phone off to try to get some actual work done. But instead of finishing up the extensions, all I could do was stare at Mama's face in the framed photo on my desk.
Grace? Grace. If you're there, pick up…" There was complete silence, which amplified sounds of the passing traffic and the lull of my car engine. Mama still didn't understand the difference between an answering machine and voice mail.
"Well, okay then. I just wanted to talk to you about something. I know you're always very busy…" I suddenly felt bad for always feeding her that line, but it was the nicest way I could put her off and not feel engulfed in guilt.
"But if you could please give me a call back, that would be great. Thanks." She paused again, and in a different, less friendly tone added, "Oh, it's your mama." She emphasized the m's, which was her way of expressing her disappointment that we hadn't spoken in a while. At least, that's what it felt like to me. I called her out on it a few times, and she shrugged it off, saying I was just hearing things. "You were always so sensitive, Grace!" as if that were a bad thing. And she wondered why we were on a strict once-a-month call schedule. I needed the full twenty-nine or so days to gear up.
I tried to convince her that she would hear from me more often if she'd just text, but she refused to upgrade her flip phone, which made texting harder for her than solving a quadratic equation.
"When you come visit, you can take me to the store and get me a new phone that texts you. All my friends have those little smiley faces. I want little smiley faces."
"Emojis, Mama. They're called 'emojis.'" The fact that they had a name blew her mind. Then every time she remembered to use the word she felt so smug.
I pulled up to a stoplight. "Siri, call Mama." It was rare to get a call from her outside of our scheduled monthly check-in, so I figured I might regret not using the twenty minutes I was about to spend in traffic talking to her.
"Hello?!" Her twangy voice squeaked upward, as if she were surprised that she was getting a phone call from me. I preferred to believe it was because she was still unsure how to use her phone and skeptical that anyone would actually be on the other end when she picked up.
"Mama. It's Grace. I got your message. You do realize that no one else can hear you, right? It's voice mail."
"Grace, you know I'm just not good at these thangs." Mama's accent still gave me a jolt, even though I'd heard it my entire life. After years living up North, the sound of it felt like the electric shock I'd get from rubbing my feet on the carpet and touching a metal door handle.
I'd spent my entire college career trying to ditch my southern accent, thanks to a vocal coach who traded me lessons for tax preparation services. When Mama came up to Boston for graduation, people looked at her, then me, then back at her, and me again, like they were watching a tennis match whenever she spoke. I suppose you don't often hear a Chinese woman speak with a southern accent, let alone one who looks like she's been dragged off the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
"Okay, it's just that I tell you this all the time. But whatever. What's up? Is everything all right?"
"Oh, never better, darlin', but you know, my birthday is coming up, and I wanted to make a big splash this year. The big seven-oh!"
I knew what was coming, so I tried to head it off to lessen the sting. "I know, Mama, and I know I promised that I would come down, but the client extensions this year…" My voice trailed off, which was the tell that I was completely full of shit. I had plenty of time between now and mid-October to get them done.
"Oh, hush, I don't want a visit. I'm turning SE-VEN-TY. I want something bigger, Grace."
I couldn't quite imagine what would be bigger than a visit from me, not because I think I'm so special and important, but because Mama hadn't done anything but the same thing for years. No amount of Xanax could get her on a plane, and the cataract taking over her left eye made it hard for her to do anything outside of daytime hours.
"I'm taking a road trip…to Graceland!" Her statement was followed by a single white-girl "woo-hoo!" And then silence, as if she were reading from a script and giving me the space for my next line.
I suddenly wished that I had just waited to call her back until I was sitting on my couch with a glass of wine in my hand.
"Wasn't one trip to Graceland enough?" I could have sworn she had taken a bus trip with her retirement village buddies a few years back. Even then I was surprised that it had taken her that long, but her fear of anything with wings—birds and planes—forced her into a bus or car, and Mama could barely drive herself to the grocery store on a cloudy day, let alone a thousand miles to Memphis.
"Didn't I ever tell you that we never made it on that bus trip? Sally Rogers passed away right before we were going to leave, and then I just couldn't ever bring myself to go."
That was right. "Bad juju," I recalled. I felt slightly relieved that I wasn't going completely nuts.
"Very bad juju."
I guess Mama had talked so much about the trip that it felt like she had gone. It didn't help that when I'm on the phone with her, I'm thinking about all the things I have to do, and her rambling just becomes background noise to my thoughts. I suddenly started to question other things I thought she had done. Or hadn't done. But with the therapist's office right around the corner, I wisely stopped myself before diving headfirst into that swirling cesspool of memories and guilt.
"But still, Mama. You driving alone all that way is just not an option. Listen, I'm about to pull up to my meeting…" Liar. She interrupted me.
"I'm not going alone…"
I did a quick scan of all the people she knew who could possibly drive her, and I ended up playing a game of "dead or senile" with the first few names that came to mind.
"…I want you to take me! Think about how fun it will be. Just the two of us ladies, hair blowing in the wind, sun beating down on our faces."
It sounded like she was describing a movie she had just seen.
"…Like Thelma and Louise."
And there it was. "Mama, Thelma and Louise become criminals who kill themselves."
"Oh god, you are so dramatic, Grace. That's not at all what I meant."
Mama always accused me of being dramatic when my truth-telling harshed the buzz of her rich fantasy life, like the time she was convinced she could somehow get an invite to Lisa Marie and Michael Jackson's wedding.
How exactly did she think this would work? "Mama, I'd love to if I could." Liar, liar. "But this stupid job. And Jeff. And…"
"Gracie! I've got the whole thing planned out. All you have to do is drive. And take some vacation days. I'm sure Jeff would understand."
He'd probably be glad to have some space. But I wasn't about to tell her that.
I pulled into a parking spot right in front of the office. Apparently it was my lucky night. "Some? Mama, okay, now I really have to go. I promise I'll think about it."
That wasn't a lie. I would think about it, along with all the times we'd spent longer than a few hours in the same room together, let alone crammed in a car for days on end, and then I would come up with some excuse to get out of it. Whenever we'd get together, it was like a master class in guilt trips, and she was the guest teacher, which would end with me feeling like I was rationalizing all my life choices to someone who wasn't really known for making good ones. To be fair, I never believed that her intention was to make me feel like a failure, but that doesn't quite matter when you're being judged by your own mother.
So avoidance had become second nature to me. And while I couldn't keep skirting around the large, probably neon and bedazzled, elephant in the room, I'm pretty sure that this was not the time to call it out.
"Well, just think about it, Grace. It'll be amaaaaaazing."
I hung up, then turned my car off, slumping heavily back in my seat, like someone had pushed me, still a few minutes early for my session. I could feel the faint pounding of a headache about to make its full presence known, so I shut my eyes, hoping that might fend it off before I had to reach for some ibuprofen.
"Grace! Hey, Grace!" It was Jeff, standing in front of my car on the sidewalk outside our therapist's building, as if we were about to go get a massage or see our favorite band play. He was always cheerful and smiling, even in the most uncomfortable situations, which made him super easy to be around—something I was definitely not used to when I met him. And it came in handy, like the time he ended up getting me my new Subaru Outback at the friends-and-family price. No one ever gets a deal on a Subaru.
"You ready?!" He gestured toward the therapist's office building, and I reluctantly nodded back, pushing my door open and climbing from the car.
"I guess," I whispered to myself, slamming the door.
"Fine." I pushed a smile out through my lips and grabbed his outstretched hand. It was cold and sweaty, but I didn't think twice.
* * *
The receptionist du jour called Jeff's name, and he popped up out of his seat like a jack-in-the-box. I followed him through the door, down the long hallway lined with diplomas and certificates that I had never really paid much attention to before this very second.
I took the spot at the far end of the couch, but instead of sitting closer to me, in the middle of the fancy leather sofa that practically swallowed us when we sat, Jeff sat clear on the other end, then started gushing over Dr. Wakefield's pretty basic blue tie, which turned into a rather bizarre but not surprising conversation about tie storage options. I started to braid the tassels on the pillow, when Dr. Wakefield abruptly interrupted Jeff's snore-fest about the restaurant customer who once offered to pay him for the tie he was wearing.
"Jeff, I don't want to interrupt you…"
Even though his face totally said, "Please stop now or I'm going to need therapy."
"…but didn't you have something you wanted to talk to Grace about this evening?"
Jeff smiled, of course, then puttered like an old, dying car about to run out of gas. "Um, well, yeah, so, uh, yep…"
I turned toward him, hoping it would ease all our pain.
"I…I…met someone." He mumbled the last words under his breath. "And we're in love," he added. Knife inserted, then twisted.
"What the hell?!" My eyes instantly filled with tears, and it felt like I was looking at the room through a fishbowl. I reached my hand out toward Dr. Wakefield, and waved it around, which I think is the universal sign for "hand me the damn tissue box," though I would have taken a pair of boxing gloves had he offered.
"Grace, I understand you're upset. Jeff felt that it would be best to tell you about his relationship in a safe, neutral environment. It was important for him to be respectful to you." He stumbled over the word "respectful," and I wondered if even he thought this whole thing would have been better done behind our own closed doors.
"Best?" The heat of my anger was burning my throat, making my voice sound pressured and gruff. "Telling me in our own house, where I can use my own goddamn tissues, would have been the actual best, asshole." I wiped my eyes, then my nose, which was now embarrassingly stuffy, while Jeff just sat there, looking down at the floor, biting his nubs of nails. Respectful, my ass.
"Being respectful means considering how the other person might feel, not doing what you think is right because you saw it on Intervention or some bullshit show. Did you think about that in your grand scheme?" I turned to Dr. Wakefield, who looked as comfortable as someone getting a blood test with a drill bit. "Aren't you supposed to be our therapist?"
"Well, I'm technically your marriage's therapist…" he replied hesitantly, as if changing "our" to "your" would somehow quell my anger. The regret in his response was almost palpable, so I did my best to toss it right back at him, hoping it would take form and land on his head like seagull crap at the beach.
"My husband just tells me he's cheating on me and you're going to be technical? I'm pretty sure you know exactly what I'm trying to say." Dr. Wakefield wiped his brow, and I imagined the beads of sweat like stinky bird shit.
I scowled at Jeff. "So, wait, all this time we're essentially paying enough in marriage counseling fees to send his kid to college, you're rendering it completely pointless with your dick?"
I thought that might get a rise out of him, but instead, he just sat, staring at the wall past Dr. Wakefield.
"I just didn't know how else to tell you, Grace." His eyes remained fixed, his voice calm, like always.
"Well, you were certainly able to ask me to marry you all by yourself. How do you throw away something so easily that you wanted so badly?"
Jeff's glare remained unmoved, but I could see tears slowly sliding down his cheeks. The therapist handed him a tissue box, but he refused, choosing to use his fingertips instead.
"Or maybe you never really wanted it in the first place."
His head whipped around at me so fast I thought it might keep going and fly off his neck. I'd never seen him show an actual negative emotion like this in the entire time we had been together. He leaned in, and I could hear his breath getting heavier as he pushed out the words through his gritted teeth and tight jaw. "Maybe you should be asking yourself that question."
Jeff wasn't completely wrong, but I didn't want to get into it now. Not like this.
He stood and took a step toward the door, but I jumped up.
"You can stay. I'll go." I walked right past him and grabbed the doorknob.
"Grace, I feel really uncomfortable letting you leave like this," Dr. Wakefield interjected.
I turned around. "What about me? Did either of you think about how I feel?"
Only Dr. Wakefield responded as Jeff sat, head in his hands. "You're right, Grace. How you're feeling is important."
"You mean you're actually feeling something, Grace? So this is what it takes?" Jeff looked like he startled himself with the outburst.
- On Sale
- Jan 24, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages